A Commenter on Vaccine Debate Highlights Church History in Dealing With Thorny Ethical Issues - Corrispondenza romana
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A Commenter on Vaccine Debate Highlights Church History in Dealing With Thorny Ethical Issues

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(Steve Skojec, Onepeterfive – April 1, 2021) Entirely unsurprisingly, yesterday’s article from Roberto De Mattei on the liceity of vaccines — even those derived from/tested on fetal cell lines — stirred up a lot of controversy. I should like to point out to those commenters who essentially declared that this long-respected Catholic scholar has destroyed his credibility that such a histrionic response is unjust, particularly based on one brief article. At the very least, we should wait to reserve judgment on the totality of his argument until his book on this topic is released in English later this month.

This is, as most of you know, a hotly debated topic, and the absolutist camp has come out swinging on one side with the full force of evocative imagery and an appeal to not just reason, but emotion. Bishop Athanasius Schneider, whom I know somewhat personally and have long held in high esteem, argues that “God will punish us if we use the cell lines originating from murdered babies to manufacture and test vaccines and medicines!”

On the other hand, the CDF statement from last December (signed off on by the pope) is more clinical, and makes clear that in the Vatican’s judgment, such vaccines are licit to use under the ethical principle of remote material cooperation with a known evil due to the gravity of the pandemic. To boil it down to one sentence from the CDF:

The moral duty to avoid such passive material cooperation is not binding if there is a serious danger, such as the otherwise irrepressible spread of a serious pathogen: in this case, the pandemic spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus causing Covid-19. it is therefore to be considered that in this case all the vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used with the certainty that the use of such vaccines does not mean formal cooperation in the abortion from which the cells with which the vaccines were produced derive.


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Whether one agrees with the CDF statement or not, a Catholic does not have the luxury of merely ignoring it; here we have a statement on a grave question of morality from the highest doctrinal office with the pope’s explicit approval; this is an area where the faithful must be most attentive to the voice of the Church. Even where she does not declare infallibility, she has the power to bind or loose consciences in this regard.

To say that this seemingly irreconcilable tension between voices known for their orthodoxy vs. those with the unique authority to issue such guidance within the hierarchy of the Church is adding a great burden to consciences is, I think, an understatement.

But the point of this post is not merely to bring the pain points of the debate back to the fore; instead, I’d like to offer more context for those seeking to consider such matters thoroughly. On yesterday’s post, there was a comment written by Rod Halvorsen, a long-time reader (and former comment moderator) here at 1P5. He has been going through Denzinger methodically for many months now, and it has given him a historical perspective on other thorny moral issues the Church has dealt with for centuries. In his view, the Vatican’s position now is consonant with those she has taken before, and he took the time to write out a number of examples of this. His comment deserves special attention, and was the length of an article in itself, so I wanted to provide it here on its own for the consideration of those weighing this matter.


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As I said in my own commentary on yesterday’s post, I am not actually an advocate for the vaccine — I think there are real safety and efficacy concerns — but I am most certainly an advocate for right thinking on this moral quandary. The temptation to absolutism here is a dangerous one, not least because it is rooted in such a noble intention, which makes it more likely to steamroll careful reasoning without due caution. But it is also seemingly irreconcilable with life in a modern world filled to the brim with problems of remote cooperation in similar or even equivalent evils.
If the absolutist crowd is right, the implications are huge: this will eventually become a question of the proverbial pinch of incense to Caesar. A thing we can do effortlessly to appease our hostile masters, or refuse with serious consequences.

Even if we don’t intend to take the vaccine now, as I don’t, we may not have the option later. Knowing if this is a hill we’re morally obliged to die on matters.

Rod’s examination of the insight Denzinger offers follows the page break. I hope it’s of some help to you.


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My interest involves the question “How has the Church actually acted in the face of moral questions?” Some assistance can be gained from looking at historical events and also Catholic documents of the faith. Denzinger-Hünermann was helpful for the latter. In Denzinger we find some actual historical decisions arising as a result of various debates both doctrinal and moral that have occurred over time. By no means is it all simple, black-and-while, or “intuitive”. For example, in Denzinger we find papal disagreement w/ previous papal decision-making and Popes who allowed debate to rage on with only a direct command that each opposing side may not condemn the other. Also, other events in history can be examined whereby we can see how the Church has addressed them or left them to be addressed by individuals exercising their own consciences.

In all of this we see the actual application of the remote material cooperation argument {RMC} firsthand. Has the principle of the integral good been discounted? You decide. Historically it is interesting to find where the Church has definitely ruled and where the Church has not. We see a similar situation to what is occurring today in the vaccine debate; those who actually engage in the initial evil acts may be seen to be guilty {and in the past were condemned}, but those who may in some way benefit after the fact are not necessarily held or are held to a lesser degree of culpability. In examination of the application of the Principle of Integral Good as understood using Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s allowance for “no concatenation at all”, it might be helpful to look at a few historical examples. The question may legitimately be asked:

“Has the Church approached gravely evil acts that resulted in subsequent benefits to society with the on the basis of ‘No concatenation at all’”?

1] Atomic Bomb led to development of peaceful Nuclear Energy {“Atoms for Peace”, ie, NOT the other way around}. Church has repeatedly though carefully expressed concern about the morality in principle of nuclear weapons but for example has never banned use of electrical energy derived from nuclear power plants which of course would not exist but for the weapons development programs of WW2.

2] Weapons testing using various illicit means. For example, we see how in the Medieval period, use of the crossbow was for a time condemned. We also see how nuclear weapons have been critiqued. However, I can find no evidence that the Church has banned the use of weapons on the basis that they were developed using illicit practices which is the “No concatenation” argument. And thus, the Church offers little or no guidance on the morality involving the specific weapons used for legitimate self defense and the arming of legitimate military forces or for use in just war which have been tolerated without regard to the details of their development. {Virtually all small arms have been influenced by dubious or outright immoral research and development programs involving dubiously obtained and used cadavers and field testing in aggressive war. The Popes’ own Swiss Guard armory is full of weapons that fit in this exact historical example.} We are speaking here of not 2 or 3 individuals but vast numbers of illicitly killed individuals who’s bodies have served as a test bed for the advance of weapons technologies.

3] Unjust war resulting in occupied territory. Church does not ban nor condemn citizens of an aggressor nation from eating the stolen fruits/agricultural products grown on illicitly occupied lands. We can name many examples here but one comes to mind. Did Pius XII demand that the German people boycott bread made from wheat taken from the illicitly occupied Ukrainian grain belt?

4] Medical history is absolutely rife with examples that go to the core of the issue and which involve gravely evil acts resulting in unquestioned benefits to society. Anatomy murder, grave robbing and war {involving illicit, immoral acts} have all provided cadavers for medical research which were not donated by the deceased. Again, we are referencing dead bodies and no small number of them. Church does not ban the use of medical advances obtained through illicit means and I cannot find where the Church ever banned doctors and medical researchers from using knowledge gained from immoral acts involving the use of illicitly obtained cadavers, body parts and advances made through the use of such knowledge…which is quite extensive and forms the origin of substantial advances in modern medical science as we know it today.

5] Chattel slavery….Chattel slavery it should be noted is a type of its own, different than Biblical slavery and involved deaths of men, women, children and no doubt, pregnant women {fetal cells come to mind} especially in sourcing and shipping the slaves. Not to mention the simple grave evil of treating human beings like cattle to be bought and sold at the whim of an owner. An example related to our topic here comes to mind; The Church condemned chattel slavery, but never condemned the wearing of cotton shirts by Catholics, the resource itself having been directly obtained through the field work of slaves. Nor were shipbuilders condemned for using hemp, nor the folks for eating rice or any other product the growing, cultivating and harvesting of which was affected by chattel slaves. Examine Pope Pius IX’s interesting relationship with Jefferson Davis during and after the Civil War. No one has a sound argument that the Pope specifically supported chattel slavery, but nevertheless, we can see how the ACTUAL functioning of the Church proceeded in spite of the monstrous evil chattel slavery represented at the time. And in Holy Office, Instruction 20, June 1866, we see how the Pope draws distinctions between specific types of slavery, allowing for some in spite of the previous general condemnations. As many are probably aware, CCC 2414 offers a different view, condemning all slavery as intrinsically evil while in fact past teaching was more nuanced and condemned the PRINCIPLE of reduction to property of a person while the practice was tolerated until future events eliminated it from being an active concern regionally {it still exists of course in various forms}. Thus the Church strove toward its elimination, while tolerating certain forms and certainly did not condemn as sinful those who remotely benefitted from the evil. And again, this involved no small number of actual human beings suffering and dying that others may directly and remotely benefit from their lives.

6] Onanism: This one is quite interesting. About this we find multiple references in Denzinger, including citation of where a woman may be a party to the practice of Onanism and suffer no culpability if she fears she may suffer some form of abuse by her husband if she refuses to comply. She need not actually suffer physical mistreatment, for example, but may only feel threatened that she will in some way suffer if she refuses to participate in what the Church considers grave evil. In one example, priests were instructed not to even interrogate an individual in the confessional to determine the details of the occurrence. And in this case she certainly “benefits” in the same manner as does her husband, through enjoyment of the act itself and the “benefit” the husband seeks which is the avoidance of pregnancy. In this case her physical proximity to the evil act is hardly remote, but her moral proximity is considered adequate to eliminate culpability. You can find this discussion beginning with “Response of the Sacred Penitentiary, June 8, 1842” (Gregory XVI) in DH 2758-2760. See also DH 2718.

7] The horrific case of Dr. J Marion Sims, the “Father of Modern Gynecology”. This example involves some of the most monstrous acts…with the accompaniment of real medical advances…of any possible example. Even as this man perpetrated hideous evils, he also provided true original medical knowledge and practices from which future practices were adopted and based by doctors all over the world. His scientific contributions cannot be denied. Neither can his horrific, evil acts be praised. Yet the knowledge gained was as far as I can locate never condemned by the Church.

8] We can also see for example where today, women may obtain an abortion in order to preserve a career. Indeed, a woman may have an abortion in order to go to med school. She completes med school and becomes a doctor. Has the Church ever instructed the faithful that they are to shun such a doctor should they find out this occurred, since the origin of her skill set was, literally, contingent {concatenation} on her choice to have an abortion? I can say as can others with experience in prolife work that these types of decisions are not at all uncommon, yet the Church does not advise that patients are to inquire into the past life events of a doctor before they are treated by same.

I will add that I will not take the current COVID vaccines. I myself have some moral concerns as well as concerns involving efficacy and long term side effects. However, I also cannot see at present how the decision making process of the Church in ’05, ’08, ’17, nor recently is in conflict with the approach used in the pst to address medical or other practices that have origins in evil acts but which are passed down to society in the form of benefits which individuals may receive without taking part in the original evil act.

This is truly terrifying…we must recognize that fetal cells have been and are being used in the development of many different products. It is naïve or purposefully duplicitous to pretend that we have isolated a specific and limited case of their use and can thus avoid it easily. The list of products is growing, not shortening and now includes many products beyond just vaccines. Brace yourself. I have to every time I think about this. It is estimated that in China alone, 9-13 MILLION abortions are committed each year. By my estimation {using some rough data acquired from a Michigan report} that amounts to something like 1344 TONS of dead baby body material per year. Does anyone believe the Chinese do not simply treat these bodies, this material as a mere commodity? Does anyone believe they are not doing this right now? Folks, from the work of Daleiden and O’Keefe, we KNOW that this precious material is being treated as a commodity in the USA today. And THAT means that MANY products {as we already know} are made using such material in research, development, refinement and improvement. Those putting forth the current argument “No concatenation at all” must then also address this issue not in just a philosophical way, but in DETAIL. To apply the argument with integrity, the Church would have to literally establish a vast network and even likely a dicastery devoted to rooting out every product and future product that may be developed using these methods in order to condemn its use. I see no moral option available NOT to do so if we are to accept the “no concatenation at all” argument which is the certain rendering of the “Principle of Integral Good” as some are applying it in critique of the positions taken by the Church since 2005 on vaccines. I cannot conceive of how this would play out in fact.

Finally, I’ll end with this. My wife and I have at great personal cost been involved in prolife work. This began when we were Protestants. What we have seen in poll and in practice is that Catholics could do a lot more to reach out to women struggling with the decision to abort. Right now, in a region known for its Traditional and Conservative Catholic population, my wife volunteers at a crisis pregnancy center {they do so much more!} where she is among 5 Catholics, the other 30 or so being Protestant. Up till just a couple years ago this was the only organization of its type in the region.

Do not let the hideous evil of abortion bury you with a sense of futility. Lives are being saved. Women are coming to the knowledge of the value of human life. Men are being confronted with the duty to support and act in ways commensurate with the value of human life. I encourage everyone to know the facts, but not to let the facts crush them. And if you are of a mind and possess the skill set, feel free to influence the Church to take another look at the issues involving fetal cell use. One thing I have also found in my study is that the Church has responded to increased knowledge and facts influencing moral decision making.

Struggle in every way you can to uphold the teachings of the Church and the name of Jesus Christ. Pray. Fast. Get involved in prolife work if you are not already.